The Brooklyn Rail: Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten

Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha

Doten combines a genius for fictive architecture with dazzling prose

By Kurt Baumeister


Trump Sky Alpha
Graywolf, 2019

In Trump Sky Alpha, Mark Doten writes: “On 1/28, the first commercial telephone exchange is established in New Haven, Connecticut…On 1/28, a fifteen-inch snowflake falls on Fort Keogh, Montana. On 1/28 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and the Holy Roman Emperor, curses the known and unknown worlds he’s left unconquered, and his dumb ass croaks and becomes a ghost. On 1/28, Canuplin is born. On 1/28, Jon Postel will reset the system,” (emphasis mine).

Humanity has a sort of love affair with lists. Big/Small, Bad/Good, Whack/Lit: we love lists because they compress the vast and unknowable into the concise and knowable, because doing this helps us create the illusion of understanding, which is, itself, understandable.

We’re terrified at the scope of what we don’t know. And we have been ever since the first homo habilis took a look around and grunted, “What the fuck?” Whether through selective attention, lying, stories, or simple compression, we struggle to create the illusion of comprehension because it makes us feel like we’re in control.

As far as lists are concerned, some of my personal favorites have always been Granta’s compilations of Best Young Novelists. The first of these, put out in 1983, showcased their Best Young British Novelists at the time and included Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and Julian Barnes. In 1983. Not bad, right?

Fast forward a few decades and who do we find on Granta’s latest list of Best Young American Novelists but one Mark Doten, whose second novel, Trump Sky Alpha, recently crossed my path. Now, I hadn’t read any of Doten’s fiction before this, but based on his mention in Granta, I went into Trump Sky Alpha with high expectations not only for the novel itself but its satirical dismantling of Trump, a creature whose nefarious political charisma ties right back to our love of lists.

Donald Trump is great at labeling people, at demeaning and reducing them. He dispenses withering nicknames with the sadistic aplomb and nasty nonchalance of a fraternity pledge master gone radioactive supervillain. This reductionism is one big reason why Trump’s minions love him: not only does he shrink their enemies down to subjects of mockery, but the concentrated malice they see in Trump as he does so mirrors the monster they know themselves to be deep inside. This, at least, is how Doten would have it. In Trump, Doten sees not a cause, but a symptom.

“Be that as it may, we’re in Trump’s timeline, and Trump is a symptom of the internet, of American sickness on the internet, he’s an internet creation, this avatar of white regressive blowhard resentment…”

For the ultimate cause of apocalypse in Trump Sky Alpha, we must reckon not with Donald Trump, but with the post-postmodern world created by AI and robotics, by climate change, nuclear proliferation, the surveillance state, and ultimately the Internet itself. For Doten, though, the what of his chillingly realistic fictional apocalypse pales beside the whys and hows.

“So there are big questions. The people who took it down, what did they want? Was it some specific attack that got out of hand, was it China or Russia and it got out of hand, was it just fuck-up-the-system, watch-the-world-burn lulz that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams?”

“Watch-the-world-burn lulz” is the sort of line you find yourself smiling at then chuckling at then scanning the room huntedly to make sure no one can see what it is you’re laughing at. On a certain level it encapsulates this novel perfectly. Hidden beneath the vicious satire of Trump sailing the skies in his mighty, gold-plated blimp, monologuing like a reflexively prevaricating Nero as the rest of the world burns and sputters and smokes, are Trump Sky Alpha’s real questions about what happened and why: events which are not completely outlandish to think may now be in the process of happening in our real world.

The answers to Trump Sky Alpha’s questions lead to everything from an Internet terror group called the Aviary that may or may not be based on a novel (all of which is, yes, obviously, planted within yet another novel) to an article on Internet humor after the apocalypse, to the villainous and insane master-hacker Birdcrash, a character that seems almost to take on the Platonic form of Mayhem, and lists of everything that happened on this or that date, lists in which the items that truly matter are buried within a mass of pointless information.

Having finished with Trump Sky Alpha, I come back to my initial expectations, the ones provoked by Granta’s pronouncement that “Mark Doten is one of the Best Young American Novelists” and the implied question, “Is that true?” The answer, mine at least, is “possibly.” But, as Trump Sky Alpha teaches us, simple inclusion on a list is not significant in and of itself. More central to understanding is what underpins the list: the rationale, say, for inclusion.

In Trump Sky Alpha, Doten combines a genius for fictive architecture with dazzling prose, all of it wrapped around a novel of ideas that never stops dancing from one question to the next. Satirically pyrotechnic and brilliantly formed, Trump Sky Alpha has a musical quality both on a line-to-line basis and in terms of narrative structure; a quality that, in the end, leaves the reader feeling a little like he’s listening to a sort of swan song for civilization, the world’s last symphony, if you will. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether Doten belongs on some best-of list. What I can say, without a doubt, is that Trump Sky Alpha is indeed a great literary novel, one that deserves to stand alongside the best work of writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.


Donald Trump’s America

By  for The Weeklings


The time for joking about Donald Trump is over. In spite of the failed crash landing of a convention the Republicans just executed in Cleveland, Trump means to be the 45th President of the United States. And the odds are even he’ll succeed. There’s no need to let that become a reality, though, America, no percentage in giving Trump a chance, or waiting to see “what it looks like”. We already know what Donald Trump’s America will look like.

Blatant racism and coarse sexism will be the new norms. Tests of religion will govern immigration and citizenship. And then there’s the maniacal whimsy of this man’s foreign policy: friendly with Putin one day, his supposed enemy the next; the suggested use of nuclear weapons; decades-old alliances treated with the reverence of a dirty joke on a cocktail napkin; war crimes that make waterboarding seem quaint an ever-ready option in Trump’s dubious bag of tricks.

You’ve seen Donald Trump’s America reflected back in the steely imperium of his gaze, heard it in the way he can talk about himself in glowing terms for hours, felt its chill in the way he strips credentials from journalists who disagree with him and threatens uncooperative “Mexican” judges with reprisals should he win the presidency, the way he embraces violence against protesters and reduces his political enemies to figures fit only for jail, makes anyone who disagrees with him into a liar, a crook, or worse, the way he’s spent his life using lawsuits to abuse our judicial system, throwing frivolous actions against his fellow citizens for no reason greater than that he can, no nobler goal than to win at all costs.

In this coming nation built on lies and ego, in Donald Trump’s America, there is one man with our country’s best interests at heart, one man good and just enough for his word to be law. In Third World countries, he might be known as The Colonel or The General, El Jefe or Dear Leader. And, in America, if we’re not careful, he might be as well. For now, America’s Dear Leader answers to Mr. Trump, the odd insistence that others treat him with respectful formality doubly disturbing when read against the blithe disrespect with which he treats the rest of us.

Don’t fool yourselves, Republicans. Don’t think for a second you need to support the team on this, that once Trump is in power the apparatus of government will rein him in. For once, Ted Cruz has actually shown you the way. Did Cruz himself have the best intentions in making that petulant convention speech? Of course not. He acted out of pique. But who can blame him after Trump gave him the sobriquet Lyin’ Ted, after he mocked Cruz’s wife’s looks, and suggested Cruz’s father had somehow been involved with the JFK assassination? And the truth of Cruz’s assessment of his party’s candidate is undeniable: Donald Trump is not a man who will defend the American Constitution. This is a man who will accumulate as much power as he can. And who knows what means he might employ to do that once he’s president? If character is destiny, and past prologue, we’ve already seen the means he’ll employ: hatred, violence, lies, and the corruption of our judicial system.

Don’t fool yourselves, Democrats. Don’t tell yourselves that no one in their right mind could possibly support Trump, that at any rate, there’s no way enough people will vote for Trump to elect him president. Didn’t you feel that way about George W. Bush? Things were good, you thought, back in 2000. Al Gore was obviously way better qualified than Bush. And you thought if W. did win, how much harm could he possibly do? He seemed nice enough, right; a compassionate conservative and all that? But W. did untold damage. In many ways, he laid the groundwork for so many of today’s troubles, from our fiscal mess and our endless entanglements in the Middle East, to the rise of a would-be despot like Donald Trump.

Don’t fool yourselves, Independents, into thinking there will be any liberty once you’re under Trump’s thumb. You will live at the caprice of our Dear Leader. Can loyalty oaths be far off? What about religious questionnaires for all to fill out, just to make sure you’re not one of “them”, you know, a Muslim? And as we know from history, once there’s a perceived, state-sanctioned “them”, it’s easy for that group to expand. Maybe someday soon atheists and Jews will join that select group? Perhaps Marxists and social democrats? Maybe even liberals?

Don’t fool yourselves, America, into thinking there are any “safe” or “uncontested” states. Wasn’t it Bernie Sanders who won the Michigan primary even though all the polls agreed he wouldn’t? Don’t listen to the people who voted for Nader in 2000 and still haven’t learned their lesson. Bush and Gore were the same, they said, back then. But they weren’t, were they? Not even close. We can’t afford to take a chance again with our country and our lives. Yet still, they make the same old arguments, trying to fool people into going along with their “statement” vote. But to what end? Do these people want to see our form of government strengthened, our country improved, or do they see America as so flawed that real political unrest (read, violent revolution) is a worthy alternative? Do they see fascism as a painful necessary step on the way to something better? And what would that something better be? Totalitarian Marxism? Anarchy?

Donald Trump recently signaled that his first act as President would be to request special powers from Congress, to make it easier for him to fire civil servants, particularly anyone hired during the Obama Administration. He wants to get rid of those whose loyalty he questions, simple as that. And where did Trump get this idea? It was the first thing Adolf Hitler did when he took power in Germany, a way to cinch an iron grip on the levers of government, a way to make the entire German state beholden to him. Nor is this the first time we’ve heard of Trump pulling a move or two from the Fuhrer’s playbook. Remember, this guy spent twenty years with Hitler’s speeches at his bedside, dipping in from time to time, reading, studying. And now he accepts the support of Klansmen and Nazis with a wink and a nod. (Hoping to capitalize on the current wave of Trumpian racism, KKK Grand Dragon David Duke has reemerged, declaring his candidacy for the United States Senate.) It’s time to stand up, America. It’s time to refuse to give any more comfort to Donald Trump, those who follow him, and those who can’t be bothered to oppose him.

I see people cheering Trump on Facebook, even a few liberals saying, “Well, thank God someone is going to bring all the troops home. Enough of America being involved in far-flung conflicts and wars of empire.” And what do you think Herr Trump, this man who proudly describes himself as “militaristic”, will do with these hundreds of thousands of troops once he brings them home? Do you think he will simply dismiss them, swell the ranks of America’s unemployed? Or, will he use them to tamp down unrest at home, to deport eleven (or twelve, or thirteen) million “illegal” immigrants? And who else might Trump deport? Who else might become a member of his unholy “them”? Just recently, we’ve heard reports that Rudy Giuliani (tipped as Trump’s Anti-Terrorism Czar) has suggested an additional 800,000 anti-terrorism police and that Trump has agreed. Could these initiatives be linked? Could all our returning service-men and -women be employed by America’s Dear Leader as his special anti-terrorism (and anti-unrest and anti-dissent) police force?

The time for debate is over—the time for boutique issues, pet positions, and fringe candidates; the time for putting your mythical, intellectual integrity above the real danger America faces. The time is over for considerations of conscience with a small c. Let’s think about conscience with a big C. Let’s think about the country as a whole, try to imagine the dangers in putting a would-be strongman like Donald Trump in power. Now that the Republican Party has nominated Donald Trump for President we, the voters, are the only thing left between him and power. If we fail now, who knows when we might get another chance? Who knows just how much blood and treasure that chance might cost?